If “walking in another’s shoes” is the key to empathy, try literally walking with the tingling soles of a person with neuropathy, or writing a note with fumbling fingers, or trying to select what to wear when you can’t discern colors.
Giving able people a chance to feel what those with failing senses endure is the idea behind the “virtual dementia” training offered by Homewatch Caregivers. The South Orange-based agency provides certified caregivers for elderly, frail, or disabled people in the community.
Trainees are fitted with dark glasses with a narrowed lens, thick gloves, ridged inner soles, and headphones feeding a cacophony of voices, sirens, etc. They are asked to perform five everyday tasks, including putting on a sweater, setting a table, and writing a note.
Since acquiring the training program in May, the agency has had 60 people go through the seven-minute experience. That included their own staff — caregivers, nurses, social workers, and administrators. They are offering it at no charge to members of the public.
In early June, they brought the training to the Charles Bierman Home, the semi-assisted living facility in South Orange that is a beneficiary agency of Daughters of Israel and the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. Bierman director Alice Greenberg-Sheedy said the training “really had an impact for people working with those with dementia or with any kind of disability.” She said additional training sessions will be planned.
In September, Homewatch will train staff at Jewish Family Service of MetroWest — also a GMW federation beneficiary agency — a number of whose clients use its caregivers.
“One of our biggest challenges is getting people dealing with those with dementia to understand that this is not willful behavior; it’s a disease,” said Susan Schechter, JFS’s clinical coordinator of older adult services. The virtual dementia training “is a way to help them really get it.”
Social worker Melissa Bressler, one of the program supervisors, heads community outreach for Homewatch. “Everyone responds in their own way,” she said, “but we’ve had caregivers who have worked for years with the elderly say things like, ‘I never really understood before what my clients are going through,’ or ‘I’m going to do things differently from now on.’”
The training program they use was created by Second Wind Dreams, a Georgia-based nonprofit dedicated to changing perceptions of aging. The goal, according to the Second Wind website, is to move professional and family caregivers from “sympathy to empathy.”
A reporter who took part in the Bierman program wanted to stop after about two minutes, eager to regain her full sight, touch, and hearing. She completely forgot one of the five tasks, which got her flustered.
Larry Aronson, who heads up Homewatch, amiably admitted that he froze while wearing the encumbrances, unable to remember anything on the list of chores. “I think it was the thought of being like that permanently,” he said.
Aronson, who lives in South Orange and is a member of its Senior Citizens Advisory Council, was in consumer products marketing and sales before acquiring the Homewatch franchise five years ago. “I wanted to get involved in something that made good business sense and that would be doing good for the community,” he said. The virtual dementia training, he added, enables him to add another dimension to what is already a very close relationship with the agency’s clients.
Karen Frank, who supervises Homewatch’s nursing staff, serves as a community nurse for a number of area Jewish congregations. “We do regular education courses with our staff,” she said, “but making the learning experiential is so much more effective.”